Saturday, April 14, 2018

The Shaver Mystery-Part Ten

Shaver vs. Lovecraft


During the pulp fiction era of the twentieth century, an American author of science fiction and fantasy stories created a world in which beings from the distant stars long ago came to Earth and now live in its hidden places. These beings look upon us as savages, or as like insects, or even as food. The author in question wrote numerous stories based on this premise and created what might be called a literary cycle. Other authors contributed stories to this cycle as well, and it generated great interest and enthusiasm among readers and fans. The author's editor helped formalize his creation and even gave it a name. We still use that name today, long after the author's death. The author's name was of course--no, not H.P. Lovecraft--it was Richard S. Shaver. And this is where a problem begins.

Ask a fan of science fiction and fantasy today about Richard Shaver and you will likely get back either puzzlement because that fan doesn't know who Shaver was or disgust that you have even brought up his name. That disgust goes back to the 1940s, the heyday of the Shaver Mystery. I suspect that in addition to disgust, there was a fair amount of shame and embarrassment among science fiction and fantasy fans of the 1940s. Finally, after the war, science fictional ideas could be taken seriously by the larger world as they were now becoming a reality in the form of jets, rockets, radar, missiles, and, greatest of all, atomic power. With all of the scientific progress being made, spaceflight could be just a few years off. Bob McKenna, one of Richard Shaver's collaborators, even said so. According to an article from 1946, "Bob says that within the next ten years somebody--maybe you--will reach the moon." (1) Then here came Richard Shaver--Raymond Palmer, too--with their stories of dero and tero. These men were wrecking science fiction, threatening the sanity of readers, holding up the entire genre to ridicule by the general public. When Life featured science fiction in its issue of May 21, 1951, it gave a good deal of space to the Shaver Mystery (Dianetics, too), calling it "the Shaver hoax." (2) The article, by music critic and writer Winthrop Sargeant, is balanced, but it could only have enforced in the minds of everyday readers that science fiction, which had previously existed on the comic-strip level of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, had risen--or fallen--to that of hoaxes and pseudoscientific nonsense. No wonder science fiction fans were so angry.

I say were, but are--the present--might be the more accurate tense. Consider again my first paragraph above: H.P. Lovecraft created a world in which beings from outer space came to Earth in the immemorial past and still have it out for us. Lovecraft wrote numerous stories based on this premise. He even had a jocular name for it all, calling it "Yog Sothothery." Lovecraft's interpretation was loose. After he died, August Derleth tightened it up and gave it a name, the Cthulhu Mythos. (He might have Catholicized it, too.) We still use that name and everybody who's anybody knows what you're talking about when you say "Cthulhu Mythos." If you look up Lovecraft on the Internet Speculative Fiction Database (ISFDb), you will find a label under "Fiction Series" for the Cthulhu Mythos, and under that a list of stories. If you go to the online Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, you will find a stand-alone entry on the Cthulhu Mythos as well. Yet neither of these things is true about the Shaver Mystery. If you do a search in the Encyclopedia for the Shaver Mystery, you will simply be referred to other entries. And as far as I can tell, the Shaver Mystery as a fiction series is nowhere to be found in the ISFDb. In other words, if you want to know the titles of the stories in that series, or who wrote them, or how many stories there were in all, you will come up empty, this from two of the best online sources of information on fantasy and science fiction.

None of this is to say that the Shaver Mystery is on the same level as the Cthulhu Mythos. I haven't read any Shaver Mystery stories, but if they were in any way compelling, they would still be read today instead of being ignored and forgotten. In addition, neither Lovecraft nor anyone else ever claimed that his stories were based in fact. There are no psychotic delusions when it comes to the Cthulhu Mythos. Unlike the Shaver Mystery, it's something fun, engaging, and entertaining. But in the interest of a more scholarly study of science fiction, we ought to be able to look at the Shaver Mystery with some objectivity instead of with the seventy-year-old shame, disgust, embarrassment, and anger of the offended fanboy. I can understand that it happened then, but no one now has any great stake in being either for or against the Shaver Mystery because there is nothing at stake. Can't we just talk about it?

Part of the problem, too, is that so many observers dismiss the Shaver Mystery as a mere hoax and without any consideration of its possible deeper meaning. (The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction calls it "hoax-like.") I don't think the Shaver Mystery was a hoax and the reason is simple: when it comes to their delusions, mentally ill people don't know what a hoax is, let alone how to pull one off. Well, you might say, maybe Raymond Palmer was the hoaxer. Maybe so, but that doesn't take into consideration that Palmer seems to have believed that Shaver was telling the truth, or at least some part of the truth. Palmer, a Fortean and something of an occultist, described his own experiences that seem to have borne out Shaver's claims about voices and forces beyond ordinary human ken. To say that the Shaver Mystery was a hoax is beside the point, and to dismiss the Shaver Mystery as a hoax is to avoid getting at a deeper issue, just as the Condon Committee dismissed flying saucers in 1968 as being unworthy of further study. That may have been true in Edward Condon's view. Like Sheldon Cooper, Condon was a physicist. He wasn't interested in any field that is "all about yucky, squishy things." ("Yucky and squishy"--sounds like a description of Cthulhu.) I think there is something to be gained by studying flying saucers, not in a hard-science sense, but in the sense of a reaching a greater understanding of human psychology, perception, spirituality, belief, etc. Likewise, I think we should be able to study the Shaver Mystery not only as a part of the history of science fiction (it's there--get used to it) but also as an example of how both gnosis and psychosis come to be a part of culture.

To dismiss the Shaver Mystery because of its wackiness also doesn't take into account the general wackiness of so many ideas that are so commonly and unthinkingly accepted in the mainstream. Flying saucers are a perfect example. It's a fact that flying saucers come from science fiction, not from outer space. Raymond Palmer pretty much invented them. He promoted and exploited them as he did the Shaver Mystery. But do people consider flying saucers to be a hoax? Doesn't a very large part of the population actually believe that flying saucers are alien spacecraft arrived here from other planets? Why should one idea be so readily accepted and the other so quickly dismissed? The same questions can be asked about all kinds of Fortean, occult, pseudoscientific, and fringe phenomena: Bigfoot, ghosts and haunted houses, the Bermuda Triangle, the Kennedy Assassination, secret Nazi bases in Antarctica, ancient astronauts--the list could go on and on. So a viable population of very large wild hominids roams over Ohio but dero and tero are nonsense? Yes, you say, aliens came to Earth in ancient times, but if you think it happened in the way Richard Shaver described it, you're just plain crazy. It actually happened the way L. Ron Hubbard described it, see? Or maybe it was Erich von Däniken or the television guy with the crazy hair who got it right. Anyway, the arguments in favor of one thing and against another are endless, and the devotees of each will go on arguing about them forever and never budge an inch in their positions. You could ask the same kinds of questions about seemingly more realistic ideas, ideas that are embraced by millions of people the world over, including socialism, Marxism, political correctness, global warming, transgenderism, and so on. Aren't all of these things also lies, hoaxes, delusions, or examples of pseudoscience, gnosticism, or simply minds out of touch with reality? Why should one be accepted and any other rejected? Shouldn't we reject all untruths? Probably, but then I guess the world would be less fun and interesting as a result.

I think that people sense something distasteful about the Shaver Mystery. It's small and shrunken, like Shaver's eyes--a sick and shabby belief. It was dreamed up by a madman, and though it rose to publication in the oldest science fiction magazine in America, it soon shrank away to the cheap, ratty pages of crackpot publications issuing from the boondocks of Wisconsin. (Raymond Palmer and Richard Shaver both moved to that state in the 1950s.) To believe in the Shaver Mystery is to invite sickness, paranoia, and psychopathy into your life. I think that when it comes to detecting this kind of sickness, our vision is keen. We instinctively recoil from it. I think that explains in part the ultimate failure of the Shaver Mystery.

Another difference between the Shaver Mystery and so many other crackpot ideas is that it was the singular vision of a singular man. Everyone can get in on flying saucers, Bigfoot, and Nazi bases in Antarctica. Those things seem to have come from real life. They appear to be somewhat plausible. In contrast, the Shaver Mystery came from the diseased mind of one man. Thousands of readers of the 1940s may have found it compelling at first, but there just wasn't enough there to turn it into a belief system for the masses of men. It ultimately worked for Shaver and no one else, and it died when he died. I think that lack of a compelling system of belief can be traced to the impossibility in Shaver's scheme for personal salvation. Shaver was a materialist and caught in a web of pain, suffering, and paranoia. There seems to have been no way out for him and no hope for salvation or redemption. Flying saucers are different. A belief in flying saucers offers hope and a way out. Scientology, socialism, and other crackpot schemes that appeal to and are spread among the masses of men also offer hope, even if that hope is ultimately false or delusional. (I read a quote once that hope is for the hopeless.) Finally, flying saucers are a lot more fun than the Shaver Mystery. As in the case of the Cthulhu Mythos, we shouldn't count out the fun factor in any bit of popular culture. 

Next: Shaver and Lovecraft

(1) Untitled item, Pittsburgh Press, May 21, 1946, p. 25.
(2) "Through the Interstellar Looking Glass" by Winthrop Sargeant, Life, May 21, 1951, pp. 127-130+.

Even as late as 1958, Richard Shaver and Raymond Palmer were still on the Shaver Mystery. Evidently there were still readers interested in it as well, judging from the "Special Shaver Mystery Issue" of Fantastic, the cover of which is show here. Palmer didn't exercise editorial control of Fantastic, so opposing opinions were allowed. A.J. Steichert contributed an essay to this issue calling the mystery "Dangerous Nonsense!" The cover artist was Leo Summers. Note the rays projected around the woman's head. Does the little green man have his finger on an influencing machine?

Original text copyright 2018 Terence E. Hanley

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